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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Four Hundred Years of Art Marketing

When an artist sells a painting, or some other work of art today, he or she probably doesn't think much about today's art market, much less how that market came to be. When you stand quite close to something quite large, the "big picture" becomes overwhelming--too big to contemplate. Artists know their own work, their local competition, and have some feel for sales prospects in the local area. Beyond that, the artist either doesn't care about, or knows the futility of caring about the larger art market. Though the way artists sell their work is changing gradually, for many artists, the so-called "art market" seems almost hypothetical. Or, it seems always to have "always been there," something like Mount Everest. Actually, a more apt comparison might be Mount Rushmore.

During the 1600s, there was a gradual shift of art patronage from commissioned work to that done "on speculation" (meaning it was sold either by the artists or through agents). This was largely the result of the gradual decrease in church sponsorship of the arts and the rise of Protestantism in Europe, which took a much dimmer view of such expensive "decorations" than did Catholicism. Concurrent with this trend was the widespread use of printed material in place of strictly visual forms in religious education. A gradually improving (and institutionalized) education system brought with it a gradually increasing literacy. This chain reaction also was at least partly what triggered the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle classes (or bourgeois, as the French would have it).   
Through most of the 1700s, there still remained widespread government support of the arts (which meant commissions) but in Holland, France, Germany, and England, where lived the most upwardly mobile middle classes, they easily made up the loss of church commissions. Often, of course, this meant simply more commissions rather than work purchased "off the shelf," so to speak. But with the founding of the French Academy in 1648, with its annual Salons, even though still tightly controlled by officialdom, these affairs were basically high-classed "art markets" as much as showcases. An artist had to have work accepted frequently into the Salons in order to sell. With acceptance came commissions, of course, but an artist might do dozens of smaller works to sell himself between big commissions. Thus the Salons helped spawn and drive the free market in artwork. And, as hated as they were by those seeking to broaden the definition of art in the nineteenth century, the Salons still served a very important purpose and could not be ignored, even by those who wished to.   
The poor, put-upon Impressionists were prime examples of this. The problem with Impressionism was that the work was largely hated and scorned by the rising middle class of the time. A funny thing happened to the bourgeois as they rose to relative comfort and prosperity. They tended to imitate the aristocracy in matters of art and taste. And, they relied on the decisions of the Academic Salon jurists and art critics/journalists of the time to tell them what they liked. While Impressionism may have sparked some increase in the reliance on the open market, these works were such a small part of all art sales as to be almost negligible. Academic art was mainstream, be it Romantic, Rococo, or Classical. The open sale of these works, which had started a good two hundred years before, was the tail wagging the dog-eat-dog commissioned art market by the 1880s and the dawn of Modernism. Yet, that nineteenth century art market "mountain," though it seemed eternal, was acquiring a new face. Despite rock-hard resistance from the Academic establishment, the Impressionists and their Modern Art descendants (and agents), gradually gave a new appearance to an old, monolithic, economic landmark much as Gutzon Borglum later did to Mount Rushmore.